B-52’s: Whammy! US CD 
- Legal Tender
- Whammy Kiss
- Song For A Future Generation
- Queen Of Las Vegas
- Moon 83
- Big Bird
- Work That Skirt
Today’s review completes my trifecta of vintage New Wave reviews of albums that I never had or even heard until right now. And in an eerie coincidence, each of these albums was the third album by the groups in question… coincidence?? [insert stinger]. I was an early adopter of the B-52’s [does that possessive apostrophe in their name bother you too?] and after seeing that screaming yellow zonker of a debut album tempting me in the racks for at least a year, I finally bit after seeing them on Saturday Night Live in the dawning days of 1980. The album was a polarizing smash with some of my friends hating it and others borrowing it to take it to clubs! I loved the day-glow, anything goes vibe that was surprisingly sophisticated beneath its veneer of simplicity.
When their sophomore album, “Wild Planet” was released late in 1980, of course it was the album of the week! In high school, my lunch money went to records, of course, and I could buy a new one each week with the $7.50 I was allotted. This one was not the world shifting paradigm that the first one was, of course. We had an idea of what to expect this time, but “Wild Planet” very successfully plowed and re-planted the field that was theirs alone, back in the day. I can’t say why I didn’t bite for “Whammy!” but it remained until last Sunday morning, when I saw a bundled package of 2 CDs for $4.00 at 2nd&Charles; a pairup that could only appeal to me since there was no rhyme or reason behind it. $4.00 netted me CDs of “Whammy!” and Steely Dan’s “Aja.” I’ll let you wonder how and why those were grouped for sale, but the price was certainly right and I’ve been obsessed with Steely Dan’s “Peg” for longer than I care to admit.
Of course, I remember hearing “Legal Tender” when it became the first video by the group on MTV. It was a fun enough song, but the appeal was hampered by the group’s over reliance on synthesizers and drum machines. While there were synths used on the first two albums, the wholesale vibe on those records was primarily rock instrumentation filtered through a Nino Rota/Yoko Ono obsession. Here the main course of the day was straight up synthpop, ca. 1983. The song was fine, but the sound was thin.
The next song was ostensibly the title cut here. “Whammy Kiss” was a strange one. It sounded more like a dub mi of a B-52’s track, which sort of made sense since producer Steven Stanley had worked with the band in a mixing capacity on the band’s previous “Party Mix” EP and his dub credentials from the Tom Tom Club records [that probably had the closest vibe to the B-52’s of any other New Wave act] came by honestly enough. Still, the distance given Fred Schneider’s vocals here after the extended intro seemed to be off putting. The whole track sounds like the work of aliens who were exposed to the B-52’s once and told to make some music. The traits were there, but they failed to gel here.
I can’t say the same regarding the second and more wonderful single, “Song For A Future Generation.” This had drum machines and synths dampening the spirit of the music, but the song in question was strong enough to compete with the thin sound here. I love how the whole band vocalize here and the batty refrain of “…let’s meet, and have a baby now” was simply bonkers yet brilliant.
Next up is my favorite song from this album. “Butterbean” was a gleeful celebration of the humble legume. Here the synthesizers were used for quirky, almost novelty effect, which I have to say fit the feel of the band better than on the previous tunes. Fred Schneider takes this one all over the map as he exhorts his ardor for the titular bean. The sense of absurdity, that someone would make a song about how much they loved butter beans, was the almost child-like aspect of this number that was most endearing to me.
“Well you can have your yams
You can have your collared greens
But if you want to please little ol’ me
You better fix butterbeans!”
What would be side two began with “Trism,” a curiously sober kind of science fiction based song for this zany party band. Definitely a new wrinkle for this album, as the next tune “Queen Of Las Vegas” sounds from the title like a typically kitschy B-52’s song, while the song reveals itself to be almost a country + western “momma’s dyin’” weeper about the skeletons in the family closet that resulted in the singer. These two songs attempt to broaden the band’s thematic reach but are only partially successful, since they are shoehorned into a synth-heavy coat of paint applied with a heavy hand to the band’s traditional party vibe. There are a lot of tentative new directions tried here and the album failed to cohere as a result.
Track seven was filler to these ears: “Moon 83” being a remix of “There’s A Moon In The Sky [Called The Moon}” from that amazing debut album. It played like a dub version with the vocals set into a new squiggly synth-funk backing. I later learned that the original track seven for the first pressing of the 1983 album was a cover of meta-influence Yoko Ono’s “Don’t Worry, Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking For Her Hand in the Snow).” this was removed from all subsequent pressings so I guess I’ll have to track down an LP of “Whammy!” to hear it, but seeing as how it’s an anguished response to Ms. Ono’s custody battle for her daughter with her ex-husband, I can’t imagine that the tone of it is appropriate at all for the B-52’s to cover it. But who knows, next to “Queen Of Las Vegas” it might have made sense.
The album then blindsided me with a left field moment that shocked… because it sounded like a classic B-52’s number with Cindy Wilson’s crazed bongo playing and a wailing horn section glossing over the canned, synthetic rhythms here for a vibrant feel that only “Butterbean” managed to attain here. The closing “Work That Skirt” was a bad move after “Big Bird.” The canned rhythms here on this instro were lifeless, and “Moon 83” was practically another instrumental with only parts of the chorus retained for that number. It makes for a weak ending for what was definitely an uneven album.
I had not been convinced by “Mesopotamia” and hearing the follow up decades later, this one took a bit of time to warm up to fully. On first listens, the sonic palette can only be seen as a mistake for this once very vibrant to overcome as they then sounded like a Casio-driven synthpop band like any other in the waning light of the New Wave movement ca. 1983. The stabs at more serious songwriting on side two don’t really mesh with the wackier vibe on side one. But given a few listens, I’ve been drawn in more than I anticipated up front with this album. It had three stone cold classics in “Song For A Future Generation,” “Butterbean” and “Big Bird” with a near miss with “Legal Tender,” the song here that could have benefitted the most from a reduction of drum machines and synths.
It’s hard to believe, but originally the band and producer Stanley had wanted to mix the album tracks together ala “Party Mix” with each cut segueing into the next. With the tonal shifts on some of this material, I can understand why Warner Brothers balked at that notion. In any case, the legacy of that notion remained in the long extended instrumental vamp intros/outros to some of the songs here. “Particularly with “Whammy Kiss” and “Big Bird.” The latter sustains the notion better due to the preponderance of real instruments on the cut. This band come alive when instruments [or even toys] were being played in a room by human hands. Alas, nothing I’ve heard of the B-52’s going forward [“Cosmic Thing” and parts of “Good Stuff”] suggest that this ever came to pass.
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